In the carefree days when I lived in that fluffy haven of zen, London, I began to think that people whispering behind their hands and raising their eyebrows as you walked past, and children eyeballing you all the way down the street was interesting behaviour from the period of the Salem witch hunts, or something that happened on the set of Mean Girls (or possibly The Elephant Man), or at the very least stopped once you left school.
Fool – I’d forgotten what it was like to be a haafu (half Japanese, half something else) in Japan. I thought I must have misremembered the girl from piano school wrinkling her nose at me like I was a bad smell and telling the others not to talk to me under any circumstances because I was a gaijin (a filthy dirty foreigner. The adjectives aren’t necessarily part of the translation). But then I also thought I must have misremembered the piano school concert where I had to wear paper bunny ears and a cotton wool tail and was two heads taller than everybody else, until I saw the photographs.
When we came back to Japan fifteen years after living here as children, my sister and I, we enormous, galumphing haafus, accidentally initiated ourselves by fire through the daring deed of going running in my mother’s hometown, Tottori (such an unnecessary thing to do – if we’d just stayed inside reading manga, it would never have happened). Running, it turns out, isn’t really the done thing anyway – in the gym, I’ve seen people sitting on the cycling machines reading the paper, or watching the news while strolling on the treadmill, but not really getting up a masochistic gaijin sweat. In an ageing town like Tottori, exercise (like most other things) is strictly regimented – everybody does ‘radio exercise’, co-ordinated moves and stretches in time to booming commands and crackly nationalistic music from the radio, first thing in the morning on the concreted equivalent of the village green. It’s slightly North Korea. So any exercise outside of that window already raises alarms as weird behaviour; I’m not totally convinced, though, that the other good citizens of Tottori would have elicited the reaction we did from a group of school kids, which is the sort of reaction I would have expected if we were a rare species of hippopotamus escaped from the zoo and galloping gaily through the town centre.
First, they watched us open-mouthed, their heads following us as one. Then a couple of them made the strangled exclamations and whoops generally recognised as ‘omg, wtf’. And then, en masse, they started chasing us down the street. I’m not entirely sure what they wanted to achieve by chasing us – they didn’t seem particularly bloodthirsty, and at any rate they only came up to our enormous gaijin bottoms – but the chasing was quite determined. Maybe they just wanted to see what unbelievable thing we were going to do next. Eventually, amid shouts of, “God, they’re huge,” and “Sugeeee”, which is loosely translated as “incredible” with the myriad connotations that holds, they were defeated by a red light at a 3ft pedestrian crossing and let us roam free.
Luckily for us, I think (I think, and this is in Japan, where the party line and reality, or what people tell you and reality, or anything you might be experiencing and reality, don’t have anything to do with each other, so it’s hard to tell) that more recently, and in Tokyo particularly, haafus have taken on an exotic, rather than embarrassing-for-you, sheen. From being the social equivalent of monkey brain soup, we have graduated to lemongrass. Even being labelled a haafu as distinct from a gaijin is a progression, though whether it’s an elevation or a relegation in status is hard to say.
Teenage girls and cutely dressed women, when they find out where I’m from (or not from, depending on how you look at it), open their eyes till they’re circular and cover the mouths with the tips of their fingers like people acting ‘shock’ in a pantomime, and go “Haafu? Wooow!” But since that’s a normal reaction to things ranging from a slightly unusually cooked cabbage (as five minutes flicking through the TV channels amply proves) to admitting you made the moon landing before Neil Armstrong, it’s hard to gauge whether your race is scandalous, dull, delightful or horrific, or indeed how you’re meant to react at all, since arguably your race isn’t really of your own doing. I was talking to a delivery man the other day who complimented me on my Japanese in extreme surprise, then when I told him I was haafu, bowed his head and told me how sorry he was. It’s an enigmatic response.
People running low on conversation on a date, say, might (no, do, I’ve seen them do it) look around and point out, “Oh look, there’s a haafu,” the way you might say, “Look, that dog’s only got one leg.” The thing is, after I’d been here all of about one day, I found myself doing it too (but in my head, I’d like to point out) – people’s appearances are so homogenous that a foreign face is like a small electric shock, and a haafu is an imposter that doesn’t quite compute. It’s like living in a land of pedigree dachshunds and being a bulldog; kind of all the more jarring to the dachshunds because the spec is too close. Like, if you have to be enormous and slobbery and have that weird snout thing going on, couldn’t you just be a pig? Must you be a dog and confuse everybody?
Add language into the mix with the slightly off appearance, and you have a hot mess. For some people, it seems that encountering me is like being faced with a Magic Eye picture (it’s Japanese… no it’s not… yes it is…) or suddenly being brought down by one of those neurological conditions that breaks down your facial recognition centre (and ability to interact with other people). In one of the huge electrical stores in Akihabara (and I’m not pretending that’s the place to find the most socially adept of people), I went through three different assistants, all shoved in front of me like they were being brought in front of a firing squad, who spoke to me in very, very halting (not to say totally incomprehensible) English, despite the fact I was speaking to them in totally clear Japanese (and I know it was totally clear, just the way you know you are being totally clear when you say, “Where do I find the lightbulbs, please?” to a clerk in John Lewis). Though I may have slightly lost my case when the episode ended with me hurling a lot of English expletives at them in frustration. And when I tried to open a bank account (I couldn’t – let’s not get into it), I asked all the questions, and the bank teller pretended I wasn’t there and addressed all the answers to my aunt (a full on Jap).
Not fitting into the Nihonjin or gaijin categories but lurking like a bad smell between and within both definitely has its advantages, though. It suits me just fine to answer in English that I don’t understand when the bike parking warden tries to tell me I can’t park my bicycle outside a combini for two minutes, or when my appalling (ok, non-existent) keigo (formal Japanese) combined with an apologetic smile passes muster in situations where a native would be shot or imprisoned for not using the right form of the verb ‘to be a worthless worm’.
I love Japan, missed it all the time I was away, the smell of anything cooked in soy sauce bringing on an almost physical homesick pain. It makes me feel weirdly protective (like it needs me, a haafu, to protect it…), so when all people know about Tokyo is the pant-vending machines and laugh, I want to clobber them. It also drives me utterly insane on a much more personal level than it should – things I should be able to shrug off follow me around like a rageful cloud for days. In all these respects, it reminds me of my mother.
Being a haafu, whether it’s legitimate or not, I can bat for both teams, and, like riding a bicycle in Japan, weave willy-nilly between the roads of national pride and pavements of foreign bemusement and distance. Japanese food is the best in the world, our service is second to none, we, the Japanese, are polite and friendly beyond measure, and our country is clean and beautiful. What’s that you say? You’ve also heard that there’s an insoluble problem with public groping and that the obsession with towing the line is almost a certifiable condition? How frightful; it isn’t like that in England, where I come from.